Contemporary analysis and criticism

Part of the Science Networks. Historical Studies book series (SNHS, volume 37)


From the few and erratic observations of Venus’ satellite it was impossible to conclude with any certainty whether the object existed or not. Theory offered no help, for neither physical nor astronomical theory had anything to say about the number and distribution of satellites in the solar system. If it was assumed that the companion of Venus really existed — and it just might — why was it seen only so rarely and irregularly? Conversely, if it was assumed that it did not exist, such as the majority of astronomers thought, how could the observation claims be accounted for? After all, something had definitely been seen, real or not. During the 1760s and 1770s, when the non-existence of the moon became the favoured view, basically three explanatory accounts were developed to address the questions. One was due to Mairan in Paris, the other to Hell in Vienna, and the third to Lambert in Berlin. Some other explanations, suggested in the nineteenth century, will be discussed in Chapter 6.


Solar Atmosphere Earth Radius Ghost Image Optical Illusion Ocular Lens 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    Mairan 1764, p. 164. An almost identical version of the memoir appeared in Journal des Sçavans, August 1762, pp. 528–533. Given that Mairan read his first memoir to the Academy on 8 May 1762, about a year after Baudouin gave his addresses on the satellite of Venus, his silence with respect to Baudouin and Montaigne is puzzling. It is hard to believe that this work was unknown to him. Mairan’s defense of the satellite of Venus was briefly mentioned by the Greifswald astronomer Lampert Röhl in a book of 1768 dealing with the Venus transits (Röhl 1768, p. 141).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    This was the second, much enlargened edition. The first edition appeared in 1732. On Mairan and his theory of the aurora borealis, see Kleinbaum 1973, pp. 203–228, who notes the connection to the Venus satellite on p. 225. See also Briggs 1967.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Eames 1735, p. 256.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Mairan 1764, pp. 164–165. See also the account in the Histoire, which according to Kleinbaum 1973, p. 242, was written by de Fouchy (Fouchy 1764).Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Encyclopédie II, p. 260.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Maraldi 1721, who also discussed other possibilities based on special properties of the luminous matter of which the starlight was assumed to consist. The brightness of the star was known to vary with a period of about 332 days, but the variation was not regular. For a survey of Mira Ceti, see Joy 1959. For the continual fascination of Mira Ceti and dark objects in the universe, see Jean-Sylvain Bailly’s (1736–1793) wide-ranging chapter on dark and luminous celestial bodies in Bailly 1779, vol. 2, pp. 681–732.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Hahn 1801, p. 197.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    On Hell’s life and career, see Sarton 1944.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    In addition to Sarton 1944, see also Woolf 1959, pp. 176–179 and Nielsen 1957b (in Danish). Hell’s late rehabilitation was due to Simon Newcomb’s (1835–1909) careful detective work. See Newcomb 1883.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Hell 1765, pp. 29–30.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    On the “secret letter,” which somehow came to be known by Montaigne and to which he replied, see Hell 1765, p. 6, Lambert 1775, p. 180, and Schorr 1875, p. 71.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    The history of astronomy is rich of examples of observations based on false images. For a particularly interesting case, which in some respects illustrates Hell’s hypothesis, see Sheehan 1988, pp. 204–208, and Sheehan and Dobbins 2003.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    Hell 1765 and Hell 1766. For later critique of his conclusions, see Schorr 1875, Webb 1876 and Stroobant 1887a. De satellite Veneris was also printed in Nova acta Eruditorum, February–March 1768, pp. 49–126.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    Hell 1765, p. 89.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    Hell 1792, which was the second volume of a four-volume work published 1791–94. The editor and translator, L. A. Jungnitz (1764–1831), published on electricity, meteorology and lunar eclipses.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    Hell 1792, p. 113.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    Ibid., p. 120.Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    Boscovich 1767. This work was translated into German the same year by the Viennese Jesuit and priest Karl Scherffer (1716–1783).Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    On Boscovich and the Paris Academy, including his strained relations to d’Alembert, see Pappas 1996. Issue 4, volume 49, of Revue d’Histoire des Sciences is a special issue on Boscovich.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    Boscovich 1761. He read the paper to the Royal Society on 19 June 1760.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    Between 1760 and 1786, Boscovich wrote more than 200 letters, but none of them was addressed to Hell. See Mandrino, Tagliaferri and Tucci 1986.Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    Boscovich 1767, p. 287. The translations from Hell and Boscovich have kindly been made by Henk Bos.Google Scholar
  23. 23.
  24. 24.
    Wargentin 1780; Lalande 1792, vol. 3, p. 211.Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    Wargentin 1780. On Wargentin and his observations of Venus, see the detailed biography Nordenmark 1939, especially pp. 174–197 (in Swedish but with an extensive French summary). Wargentin’s Venus observations of 1 June 1777 were in response to the prediction made by Lambert, to be mentioned in section 4.3.Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    Astronomisches Jahrbuch (for the year 1792), published 1789, p. 254.Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    Lambert 1775, p. 179.Google Scholar
  28. 28.
    Lambert 1976, p. 57.Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    Lambert 1776, p. 188.Google Scholar
  30. 30.
    Lambert 1773, Lambert 1775, and Lambert 1776. The Berlin Astronomisches Jahrbuch was from 1777 to 1829 edited by Bode, with whose name the yearbook is usually associated. On Lambert’s occupation with the moon of Venus, and the connection to his cosmological world view, see Blumenberg 1975, pp. 609–626. Blumenberg argues that the two works represent the same “thought style.”Google Scholar
  31. 31.
    Allgemeine deutsche Bibliothek27 (1775), 84–85. Kästner (1719–1800) is today best known for his work on parallel theory which inspired Lambert’s important research on the topic and indirectly influenced the foundation of non-Euclidean geometry in the early nineteenth century.Google Scholar
  32. 32.
    Kästner 1841, pp. 79–80. Apart from his works as a scientist, Kästner was also known as a prolific writer of occasional poetry. His poem on Venus’ satellite, written about 1778, was one of many hundred Sinnedichte. The term cicisbeo (or cicisbee), derived from Italian, was widely used in the eighteenth century for an escort or lover of a married woman.Google Scholar
  33. 33.
    Letter of 23 March 1775, in Euler 1862, pp. 586–587. Euler (1707–1783) left Berlin for St. Petersburg in 1766, when he was replaced by Lagrange (1736–1813), who stayed in Berlin until 1787.Google Scholar
  34. 34.
    On Hell’s letter to Lambert, see Bopp 1915, p. 74.Google Scholar
  35. 35.
    Lambert 1775, p. 183.Google Scholar
  36. 36.
    Lambert 1776, p. 191.Google Scholar
  37. 37.
    Quoted in Wolf 1857, p. 276.Google Scholar
  38. 38.
    The letter, dated 15 February 1777, is printed in Hell 1792, pp. 114–120.Google Scholar
  39. 39.
    Lambert 1773, pp. 244–245. The idea that “the planets that are nearer to the Sun are also denser” can be found in Principia. Newton 1999, p. 814, related the density of the planets to the amount of heat they received from the Sun.Google Scholar
  40. 40.
    Lambert 1773, p. 248. On Lambert and pluralism, see Crowe 1999, pp. 55–59. In his Cosmologische Briefe, Lambert not only made all heavenly bodies (comets included) inhabitable, he also believed — in accordance with the principle of plenitude — that there were on each of these “innumerable inhabitants of all possible kind and form” (Lambert 1976, p. 82).Google Scholar
  41. 41.
    Stroobant 1887a, p. 11. William Smyth, on the other hand, found Lambert’s theory to be “very consistent” (Smyth 1844, vol. 1, p. 109).Google Scholar
  42. 42.
    Hind 1852, p. 38.Google Scholar
  43. 43.
    On the method of determining the mass and density of a planet by means of its satellite, as known in the late nineteenth century, see e.g. Dionis du Séjour 1789, pp. 522–524, who for Venus reported MV/ME = 0.781 (p. 527). However, since he did not believe in the existence of a Venus moon, this value was based on estimates of the planet’s perturbations on the orbit of the Earth.Google Scholar
  44. 44.
    Laplace 1813, p. 217.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Birkhäuser Verlag AG 2008

Personalised recommendations